Bullying has become a present day epidemic, of sorts. It is unclear whether acts of bullying have increased in recent years, as witnessed by media coverage and internet exposure, or whether media and internet coverage has portrayed acts of bullying that have always existed. This chicken-and-egg theory is also being applied to volunteerism and bullying. Research on bullying has shown that children who bully have fewer interpersonal skills and have more difficulty regulating their emotions than those who do not bully. Interestingly, volunteerism has been shown to increase social and emotional skills. In fact, volunteerism itself can help children develop empathy, a key emotional element in interpersonal relationships. But until now, no one has asked whether children who volunteer bully less, or if bullies volunteer less than non-bullies.
Melissa I. Gebbia of the Department of Psychology at Molloy College in New York wanted to address this conundrum. In a recent study, Gebbia assessed the level of volunteerism teens had during their middle school years, and how this related to bullying behavior and emotional intelligence. She found that teens who volunteered more during middle school bullied less later on. Additionally, she found that volunteering experience enhanced relationship skills. Not surprisingly, Gebbia also noticed that the teens with the highest levels of aggression and bullying behavior had the fewest volunteerism experiences during early adolescence. These teens had weaker relational skills and less emotional intelligence as well.
One other area that Gebbia looked at was stress management. She theorized that volunteering would empower adolescents with tools to cope with stress. In her study, Gebbia found no evidence for this. However, the volunteers did manage their relationships and emotions better than the non-volunteers. Even though the students did not exhibit stress management skills that were direct results of volunteering, this does not minimize the positive impact of their altruistic activities. Overall, Gebbia believes that this research is important to tackling the bullying problem in our society. Although it is still unclear whether volunteering decreases the potential for bullying, it clearly was linked to less bullying behavior in this sample. She added, “Future research needs to build upon this and use a longitudinal design to identify when those interpersonal skills and aggressive tendencies develop, before or after the middle school volunteer experience.”
Gebbia, Melissa I., Martine C. Maculaitis, and Cheryl A. Camenzuli. The relationship between volunteer experience quality and adolescent bullying. North American Journal of Psychology 14.3 (2012): 455-70. Print.
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